The Common Good
May 2006

An Evangelical Climate Change

by Jim Wallis | May 2006

'I'm tired of those old white guys telling us what to think and do.'

For more than a decade, a series of environmental initiatives have been coming from an unexpected source—a new generation of young evangelical activists. Mostly under the public radar screen, there were new and creative projects like the Evangelical Environmental Network and Creation Care magazine. In November 2002, one of these initiatives got some national attention—a campaign called “What Would Jesus Drive?” complete with fact sheets, church resources, and bumper stickers.

Recently, more-establishment evangelical groups, particularly the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), also began to speak up on the issue of “creation care.” Leading the way was NAE Vice President for Governmental Affairs Rich Cizik who, on issues including environmental concern and global poverty reduction, began to sound like a biblical prophet. Cizik and NAE President Ted Haggard, a mega-church pastor in Colorado Springs, were attending critical seminars on the environment, and climate change in particular, and describing their experiences of “epiphany” and “conversion” on the issue. In 2004, the NAE adopted a policy statement “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” which included a principle titled “We labor to protect God’s creation.” In March 2005, Cizik told The New York Times, “I don’t think God is going to ask us how he created the earth, but he will ask us what we did with what he created.”

When The New York Times wrote that “A core group of influential evangelical leaders has put its considerable political power behind a cause that has barely registered on the evangelical agenda, fighting global warming,” the politics of global warming changed overnight in Washington, D.C. Previously, advocates around climate change and other environmental issues were simply not a part of George Bush’s political base, and their concerns were not on Washington’s political agenda. But the NAE constituency is a significant part of the Republican base, and the new environmental concern did not go unnoticed by the White House—the very day the article came out the White House called the NAE to ask what policies they were most concerned about.

The next year saw NAE participation at many major climate change and environmental meetings—both domestically and internationally—and a series of press stories about the new evangelical environmentalists, including a full-page interview with Cizik in The New York Times Magazine.

Then, in January, the Religious Right reared its head. A letter addressed to the NAE and signed by 22 of the Right’s prominent leaders—including James Dobson, Charles Colson, Richard Land, and Louis Sheldon—said, “We have appreciated the bold stance that the National Association of Evangelicals has taken on controversial issues like embracing a culture of life, protecting traditional marriage and family.” But it went on to say, “We respectfully request, however, that the NAE not adopt any official position on the issue of global climate change. Global warming is not a consensus issue.” It was a clear effort to prevent the NAE from taking a stand on environmental issues and even to veto the whole effort. Stick to our core issues, they implied—meaning abortion and gay marriage. Five years ago, so powerful a group of conservative Christian leaders probably could have tamped down this new evangelical effort that served to broaden the range of “moral values” and issues of biblical concern. But not this time.

A MONTH LATER, on February 9, a full-page ad appeared in The Times with the headline: “Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to solve the global warming crisis.” The striking ad announced the “Evangelical Climate Initiative” and was signed by 86 prominent evangelical leaders, including the presidents of 39 Christian colleges. I was speaking at one of those schools shortly after the ad came out and talked to their president, who was one of the signers. “I’m tired of those old white guys telling us what to think and do,” he said. He is a younger white guy who decided to take a stand, even if it was against the old guard of the Religious Right.

The “Evangelical Climate Initiative” is of enormous importance and could be a tipping point in the climate change debate, according to one secular environmental leader I talked to. But of even wider importance, these events signal a sea change in evangelical Christian politics: The Religious Right is losing control. They have now lost control on the environmental issue—caring for God’s creation is now a mainstream evangelical issue, especially for a new generation of evangelicals. But now so is sex trafficking, the genocide in Darfur, the pandemic of HIV/AIDS, and, of course, global and domestic poverty. The call to overcome extreme poverty abroad and at home, in the world’s richest nation, is becoming a new “altar call” around the world—a principal way Christians are deciding to put their faith into practice.

In the U.K. and elsewhere, Christians are rallying around the call to “Make Poverty History.” Many are comparing that call to an earlier generation of evangelical revivalists in the 18th and 19th centuries who changed history in England and America by their steadfast commitment to end slavery. For many, poverty is the new slavery. Again, this is especially true for a new generation of Christians. The connection between poverty and other key issues—the environment, HIV/AIDS, violent conflicts around the world—is increasingly clear for many people of faith.

The sacredness of life and family values are deeply important to these Christians as well—too important to be used as partisan wedge issues that call for single-issue voting patterns that ignore other critical biblical matters. The Religious Right has been able to win when they have been able to maintain and control a monologue on the relationship between faith and politics. But when a dialogue begins about the extent of “moral values” issues and what biblical Christians should care about, the Religious Right begins to lose. The best news of all for the American church and society is this: The monologue of the Religious Right is over, and a new dialogue has begun. n

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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